How to Stop Your Child's Sucking Habit


There are a number of things that we, as adults, find soothing and comforting: soaking in the bath, a good massage, being curled up on the couch with a favorite book....  When it comes to children, the comfort of Mom or Dad most always comes first, followed closely by another companion - the pacifier or the thumb.

So what do you do when the time comes to wish this companion a kind farewell?

Before attempting any methods to wean your child from a thumb or pacifier (“paci”), take into account any stress or change that your child or family may be undergoing.  If you do feel there is stress going on for you or your child, it would be wise to hold off on any immediate plans to break attachments with the paci or thumb.

Your approach will mostly depend on your child, the type of habit, and the atmosphere. The recommended time to wean from the pacifier habit is age 1. Why? Prolonged pacifier use can alter the development of the jaw and teeth.  Since stopping habits, even at the ripe old age of one, can be a process, introducing the idea around the first birthday can help minimize further attachment that could be more difficult to break later.  

Here are some ideas on how to approach saying “bye-bye paci!”

  • Trim-back method: Begin by trimming off just a small amount of the tip of the pacifier with a single, clean cut. Note: to start even more gradually, you can poke a hole in the end of the paci to make the suction feel different prior to cutting. The next week, trim just a little more and so on over the course of 3-4 weeks, until there is essentially nothing left of the paci for your child to hold in their mouth. This method works wonders as the altered paci gradually becomes less and less satisfying to your child, so they willingly give it up! Be sure you are using high quality pacifiers (like Nuk) to prevent breaking/shredding of the paci after it’s been trimmed. Also, trim all of the paci’s available to your child at the same time so they don’t discover one that’s longer after you’ve begun the weaning process.
    • Note: If it appears that your child is going to resort to the thumb-sucking habit once you take the paci away, give the pacifier back and try again another time, as the thumb-sucking habit is harder to break!
  • Paci fairy:   Several parents have shared success stories with using the “paci” fairy (similar to the tooth fairy) to exchange the pacifier for another desired prize. If your child is old enough to understand this concept, then it might be worth a try - it’s essentially the cold turkey method with a little more fun, glitter (we imagine) and a greater sense of control in the decision-making process for your child. With Easter holiday on the horizon, perhaps the Easter bunny could make the exchange instead!

While thumb sucking habits also affect the growth of the jaw and position of the teeth, it’s harder to stop and the child really has to be more on board with wanting to stop.  Occasionally we’ve seen signs of readiness coupled with a need for Band-aid use on a finger, so watch for potential opportunities to arise, but otherwise wait for your child to show signs of readiness.  For example, sucking their finger with less frequency and becoming motivated by wanting to please you as parents.  You can use these as chances for the methods below.  We often see the most success when the two methods are used together.

Give these methods a try if you’re facing the thumb-sucking habit:

  • Band-aid or athletic tape:  Wrap a Band-aid or athletic tape around the thumb as a reminder not to suck their finger. The idea here is that it will feel different, so they’ll notice when they put their finger in their mouth. Keep in mind that Band-aids can more easily slide off than athletic tape which will stay on better, so take caution with this approach especially around bed time.  If you’re looking for extra motivation, let your child pick out the color of athletic tape or the Band-aid design!
  • Reward calendar: This method is designed for children that are old enough to understand and be motivated by actions and their consequences. Start by having your child choose a calendar and their favorite stickers.  Discuss that for each day they do not suck their thumb, a sticker gets placed on the calendar.  After a week of earning a sticker a day, reward your child with a special prize (ex: small toy, new book, bubbles).  After a month of filling up the calendar with stickers, reward your child with a bigger prize (ex: special movie, outing with mom to fun place).  Be sure to discuss what the rewards will be in advance, so your child will have a source of motivation to complete the first week and beyond! 

So, what do you do if your child’s habit is accompanied by another attachment?  For example, at nap time your child requires his paci and a special blanket. When faced with a co-habit, there’s usually a better response to breaking the oral habit if the co-habit can be removed. In the example above, you’d start by taking away the blanket first (or seeing if your child can let the blanket have another special place in their room rather than in their bed).  Often, the attachment to the paci is then lessened when separated from the co-habit and soon progress will be made toward letting go of the paci.

The key to success in breaking these type of oral habits is to use your intuition as a parent and stay positive! You know your child best and this point cannot be stressed enough.  If at any point you feel frustrated, take a break and try again the next month.  You don’t want this to be a source of struggle. There are too many other things you are faced with in the journey of parenthood to let this one take the cake.  It may not happen exactly when you want it to, but know that it will happen eventually. 

“At laaaaaast….the paci has gone so-long!”

Before you know it, your child will have said “adios” to their faithful companion! Celebrating success is a must.  Praise your child for their big accomplishment (and Mom, Dad - dance like no one’s watching!).  You may even find that your child’s dental home can reinforce the milestone.  For example, our office rewards patients that have refrained from sucking their thumb or sucking their paci for one month by giving them a certificate from Dr. Jackson and a choice of a pass to a local fun spot for kids.

As you prepare to journey down this road, remember to take it day by day. Your sweetie will stop their habit eventually, so don’t let it become a stressor. While their teeth are important, their psychological & emotional well-being is important, too. So take baby steps because “baby,” you’ve got this!